‘Why 1850 Doesn’t Feel So Very Far Away’

“Congress has been here before, and it wasn’t pretty,” writes Joanne B. Freeman, PhD, in the NYT. She is a professor of history and American studies at Yale, and author of “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.” Dr. Freeman has spent her career as a historian analyzing political violence in America, in duels, in Congress and elsewhere.

Republicans “want reconciliation without apologies, concessions without sacrifice, power without accountability. And many of them are using threats of violence to encourage Democrats and the disloyal to fall in line. If you impeach the president there will be violence, they charge.”

Political bullying was not invented by Donald Trump and his followers, Freeman points out. “Its heyday was in the decades before the Civil War. During the 1840s and 1850s, America was divided over the fate of slavery. Political parties were splintering under the strain. National institutions were struggling — and failing — to contain it. The press sensationalized the struggle to serve a cause and sell papers. And a new technology spread journalistic hot-takes throughout the nation with greater reach and speed than ever before. The telegraph was the social media of its day, and it came into use in the late 1840s as the slavery crisis was rising toward its peak.”

Read the column in the NYT.

Read her related columns: Who’s Really Shredding Standards on Capitol Hill? Naming the alleged whistle-blower is much worse than tearing up a speech…”The most famous violence in congressional history is the caning of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the Senate floor in 1856, but it was not an anomaly…Incivility is one thing; bullying people into silence is quite another. The former scores points. The latter potentially warps the balance of power between Congress and the executive branch, and smothers the protections that make government go.” 

The Violence at the Heart of Our Politics. “In Congress before the Civil War, partisan disagreement often featured Bowie knives and pistols. Are we headed back toward that way of life?..Some of the furor wasn’t slavery related; antebellum America was inherently violent, as was its politics, and Congress is a representative institution. The mighty oratory of the 1830s and ’40s was accompanied by an undercurrent of brute force. Threats and fistfights were part of the political game, and congressmen sometimes put such violence to legislative purpose.” Before the civil war, North and South went to war with each other in the House of Representatives’ chamber. “The lessons of this breakdown are severe. It shows what can happen when polarized politics erodes the process of debate and compromise at the heart of republican government. Americans lose faith in their system of government and ultimately lose faith in one another. Splintering political parties can’t contain the damage. Violence begins to seem logical, even necessary. And the press can fuel this distrust with conspiracy theories and extremist spin; the antebellum press wasn’t in the business of objectivity — and it mattered.”

When Congress Was Armed And Dangerous, 2011. News that members of Congress from NC and Utah plan to wear guns into Congress is not unprecedented. It’s not the first time “In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them…during a debate in 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. (Someone eventually took it from his hand.)”

Peruse her book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.” The first chapter is available for free.

Watch or listen to her talk about her book in lectures and presentations posted on Youtube.com or embedded below.

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